Seymour finds harmony in music, pianists credo

film review


Two kinds of people will fall under the spell of “Seymour: An Introduction,” Ethan Hawke’s respectful and affectionate study of virtuoso pianist, composer and teacher Seymour Bernstein.

Fans of classical music will savor this ode to the beauty and craft of solo piano as 81 minutes of heaven.

The other audience is anyone who ever wrestled with the pursuit of ambition, the hollowness of material success and the double-edged sword of uncommon talent.

Bernstein had all those things, but commercial pressures and the anxiety of going on stage whittled away the pleasure of playing concerts. At 50, he retired from public performance to compose and teach.

Seymour Bernstein at the Steinway, from Ethan Hawke’s film photo/courtesy ramsey fendall

He had been aware for a while, however, that he was unable to harmonize his career with the experience. After his celebrated 1969 performance at Alice Tully Hall in New York, he told his friend hosting the reception, “If you love me, you’ll never let me play in public again.”

To his friends, Bernstein, 87, is a mentor, philosopher and guru of how to attain satisfaction amid the vicissitudes of a life spent creating ephemeral art. Perhaps Hawke chose the title of J.D. Salinger’s novella to allude to another gifted Seymour who drops out, albeit in a different manner.

Several years ago, Hawke, who had never heard of Bernstein, encountered him at a party held by one of Bernstein’s students. Presumably Hawke, an actor, novelist and occasional director, was moved to expose Bernstein’s hard-earned wisdom to a wider audience (without adding much in the way of inspired and/or distracting artistic flourishes).

“Seymour: An Introduction” opens March 20 in San Francisco and Berkeley for what will likely be a short run. That shouldn’t be interpreted as further evidence of the death of civilization, mind you, for classical compositions haven’t been America’s popular music since Elvis left Memphis.

Most of the film’s running time is devoted to the longtime Manhattan resident working with students and engaged in conversation, notably with New York Times architecture critic and pianist Michael Kimmelman.

Bernstein is an astute teacher, and he’s exceedingly articulate on the subjects of music, discipline and education. But somewhere past the midpoint of the film, he begins to seem less avuncular and more pedantic.

That stems, in part, from his willingness to talk about certain subjects that we sense he’s expounded on countless times, while avoiding others. There’s a clear limit to how much he’s going to reveal about himself, and how vulnerable he’ll be in front of the camera. He likes being revered, but on his terms.

All Bernstein says about his New Jersey upbringing is that there was no music in the house and that his family didn’t own any records. He still bridles at the memory of his father’s perennial joke — “I have three daughters and a pianist” — as evidence that his old man couldn’t relate to him.

Perhaps it is this separateness, imposed on great talents by mere mortals, that pained Bernstein throughout his decades as a concert pianist. If so, why doesn’t this lifelong bachelor mention a single romantic relationship? Isn’t that an important element of living a satisfying life?

The one person who does merit his affection is the late, great English Jewish pianist Sir Clifford Curzon, with whom Bernstein studied. That recollection has a self-serving coda, though, namely that Bernstein wrote a letter out of the blue to Queen Elizabeth that presumably contributed to Curzon receiving a knighthood.

That said, Bernstein is the teacher that everyone covets — knowledgeable, experienced, appreciative, precise, encouraging and invested. If you’re still recovering from the bark and bite of J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn in “Whiplash,” then “Seymour: An Introduction” is the perfect balm.

“Seymour: An Introduction”
opens March 20 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley. (rated PG, 81 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.